Dear Karachi, your wariness is understandable but the internally displaced Pakistanis need you

When I visited Sweden’s largest city Stockholm in 2011, I found it to be unbelievably non-diverse. Everyone was white and English was a language such few people spoke that sometimes I had to communicate in gestures. That appears to be changing, with Sweden taking in large numbers of immigrants particularly from conflict areas like Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Syria.

As all migration does, there was a sense of alarm among the Swedish people who were wary of the immigrants who were coming into their country from parts of the world that many Swedes have never even been to. On the other hand, the immigrants felt isolated and unwelcomed, unable to adjust to their new home with all its seemingly insurmountable cultural differences.

Today, I read a heartwarming story about a Swedish woman who used this cultural gap as an opportunity to bring together all the diverse cultures that were now beginning to form a presence in Sweden. She started by hosting small potluck dinners in Stockholm where she invited migrants from the suburbs and natives from the heart of the city. Naturally, once they had interacted in an informal, friendly environment, the two groups of people developed a level of comfort.

This reminded me of the mass-scale internal displacement in Pakistan right now due to a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan. While Punjab, the country’s strongest province by economy, has opened itself up for these internally displaced persons (IDPs), the smaller province of Sindh has responded with suspicion, even the people of ethnically-diverse city of Karachi.

It’s easy to see why, though no less dehumanizing and infuriating. The IDPs are predominantly Pashtuns, who in the world of Pakistani stereotypes have come to be associated with conservative ideology and a sympathetic corner for violence. Pashtuns already form a large part of the population in Sindh, where they inhabit the province’s largest city Karachi and pretty much own all of the city’s broken yet lucrative transportation sector. They are the second largest ethnicity in Karachi, and are widely stereotyped as having conservative Islamic views and a cultural acceptance of arms and violence.

It is primarily this clash of ethnicities that explains why protests have erupted in Sindh against this current wave of IDPs.

Let’s start with the Sindhis, a cultural rather than a geographical term. They are already a political and economic minority in the province because of non-Sindhi influence in the province’s largest city Karachi. They feel that with the arrival of thousands of more non-Sindhis they will become even more marginalized.

And who has the most influence over Karachi? The Muhajirs, ironically the people who themselves or whose ancestors have migrated from India into Pakistan ever since the two countries gained independence from the British in 1947. The Muhajirs who settled in Karachi were mostly from Urdu-speaking areas of India, such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), and have ultimately come to form the largest ethnic group in Karachi. In the aftermath of the partition, the Muhajirs became Pakistan’s ruling elite by default. But they also considered themselves the cultural elite and thus never adopted any of the cultural aspects of the Sindhis. Instead, they started to enforce their own language and lifestyle onto the few Sindhis who lived in Karachi. This has contributed to Sindhis’ phobia (for the lack of a better word) of migrants.

While these clashing ethnicities have been consistent themes in Karachi’s, and Sindh’s, governance problems, they also make this area of Pakistan the most diverse in the country. Karachi used to be described as “faqeer manash” – the city that provides a home to the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, now the city mostly functions on auto-pilot while the political groups that claim to represent the clashing ethnicities of Karachi continue to quibble among themselves instead of trying to collaboratively govern the goldmine that they are sitting on.

All these factors, among others including deteriorating security in the province following an influx of IDPs from the Swat operation against Taliban, have contributed to suspicion towards migrants in Karachi and Sindh. But suspicion towards migrants fuels many of the problems of migration, turning the situation into a vicious cycle.

To be sure, the entry of migrants does cause economic, social, and political pressures and problems that make the lives of current residents difficult. But for all of those categories, there is also the healthy diversity that migration fosters.

Instead of pushing distressed people out just to selfishly further your own interests, residents can help ease migrants into the life of a city and ensure that they don’t have to resort to crime and terrorism in order to get by and feed their families.

Let’s not make an economic issue into a political one, for when we do, we create hostility in our own people for our own people. Suspicion is the last thing the IDPs deserve from us in their need of hour.

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